View from the Top: Lisa Unwin, She’s Back

Lisa Unwin is the founder of She's Back, a business whose purpose is to enable businesses to access the unique talent in women returning to work after an extended career break. Lisa speaks to the MCA about how she founded the business and gives an insight into the firms current project in collaboration with five leading consulting firms to promote gender diversity in the consulting industry.

What was your motivation for starting She’s Back? Was there a light bulb moment that really got you interested in helping women on career breaks?

It started after listening to Radio 4’s Women’s Hour Power List. After hearing about all the brilliant women featured, it made me think about what had happened to me. I was a high flyer; top grades at school and university, worked my way up at Anderson and held an important role at Deloitte. But since I’d had children, my professional career had halted.

Not long after listening to the show, I was sitting outside a café in my local park thinking about what I was going to do for the next twenty years of my working life. Looking around the café I could see other women in similar situations; former barristers and investment bankers on career breaks. We are just as bright and knowledgeable as we were when we were at work and have tonnes of professional experience, but yet for some reason we were not going back to the type of roles we once had. We know why we all dropped out; to focus our time on our young children. But that didn’t answer the question why we weren’t eventually returning.

How did this realisation turn into a business?

I thought there must be an opportunity to support women getting back to work and help organisations tap into their potential.  I wrote a really brief paper outlining what I thought the business model might look like and I sent it to a few friends. After talking to enough people it gave me enough confidence to take it to the next stage.

I spent my holiday searching the internet to see who else was operating in this space. I saw a lot focused on women currently working in business and on finding women low level part-time work. However there was nothing aimed at getting experienced senior women back into significant roles.

At that point my partner Deb Khan got involved. She thought the idea was great and wanted to help. She had faced the same issue in the advertising and creative field. Between us we set up She’s Back.

The MCA and She’s Back are working in collaboration with five leading consulting firms to promote gender diversity in the consulting industry. What are you looking to achieve with this campaign?

I want us to create significant change in the consulting industry. This is not a new problem. Consulting firms aren’t making enough progress and it is not for the want of trying. I do genuinely believe the senior leadership of these firms want to have more senior women on-board.

Why does gender diversity matter to consulting firms?

If you want to deliver great solutions for your clients, you need diverse points of view. Even in my own organisation of two it makes a huge difference. When it came to promoting the business I wouldn’t have thought in a million years to use an animation and that has been the best thing we have done. The same has got to be true for a project team of 12. If you are missing 50% of the population in one team then something is going wrong.

Another factor is that firms are starting to struggle to attract female graduates. This will continue to be the case if young women can’t see longevity in a career in consulting. Firms are struggling even more to attract women as experienced-hires.

A lot of people say that the long hours and extended travel that often come with the territory of consulting make gender diversity in the profession particularly difficult to achieve. Do you think that is the case?

There is travel, but I don’t think the consulting industry is smart enough about using technology to reduce this. For example, we are running this project with five consultancy firms using a nifty project management tool called Slack to share documentation. We met face to face the first time but since then we have had all our meetings via conference call. Technology has moved on so much that you don’t need all of that travel.

Consulting is partly about being innovative and presenting ideas to your clients. There is a lot of research that suggests that if you’re working long hours then you are likely to be depleting your creativity. The human brain is most creative in its downtime – be it walking the dog or getting out and exercising. The opinion that you are most productive when at your desk is flawed. We need to see a culture change where working late is not always associated with being productive.

How can people help with this project?

We need to find the women who have left the industry and engage with them so that their voice is heard.  It is heavily reported in the press that the reason women drop out of a professional life is because they are frustrated that they can’t get promoted. That’s not the evidence that I picked up in our initial research. We need evidence from the people that left so they can tell us why they left and what would they need to see to return.

We also need to start to have proper conversations about the myths around consulting. For example, I don’t believe that clients demand consultants on site full-time; all they really want is a solution. Let’s find cases of partners who manage a great client relationship with a diverse team and flexible working.

Trying things differently will make change happen. A lot of partners running a client project won’t take someone part-time on their team. Why not tell client partners they must have a quota of working parents who are only going to be there 4 days a week. Let’s see what happens. I am increasingly of the view that the real change will come from the transformation of client teams, not company initiatives.

The MCA is working with She’s Back on a unique project asking those who left the profession for their views.  Please help us by sharing this survey: